What is Executive Presence? The Elements for Projecting the X Factor in Leadership
Executive presence affects how others see you, whether they listen to you, and whether they will follow you.
Executive presence is a combination of traits and qualities that create your distinct personality and contribute to how others perceive you. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, the following elements contribute to executive presence:
- Gravitas – 67%
- Communication – 28%
- Appearance – 5%
In The Bullseye Principle, we highlight more traits that fall under the umbrella of these elements to create executive presence.
Projecting executive presence starts with an awareness of how you look, speak, engage, and interact with others.
As we discuss each trait, identify your personal strengths and opportunities for development.
Gravitas, confidence, and charisma
The most powerful world leaders exude gravitas, confidence, and charisma when they communicate and interact with others.
Gravitas is defined as dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner.
Confidence is defined as the self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.
Charisma is defined as compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.
While the meaning of each word makes logical sense, most people describe executive presence as “owning the room”, “having the ‘it’ factor”, or “the X factor” because we see it in the way leaders carry themselves nonverbally—how they stand, move, and speak.
That’s because our bodies are billboards constantly sending out messages to our audience. If your speech and demeanor convey confidence, audiences will perceive you as confident.
Credibility leads to trust. Trust is the currency for decision-making.
The best way to bolster your credibility is to express your subject matter expertise in a way that emotionally connects with your audience.
Words matter. Words allow you to share ideas, clarify meaning, or drive action, so choose them carefully and use them strategically. The right words can elicit a specific emotional response from your audience.
The substance of what you present—the specific details and data you choose to include—must be accurate and should be relevant to your audience and the topic you are discussing.
To project executive presence, you have to dress the part of an executive or leader.
First impressions matter and they happen quickly. One study from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging found that the brain takes just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs to determine another person’s emotional state.
According to a study by New York University, 11 judgments happen within the first seven seconds of meeting or seeing another person, including:
- education level
- economic level
- perceived credibility/believability/competence/ honesty
- level of sophistication
- sex role identification
- level of success
- political background
- religious background
- ethnic background
- social/professional/sexual desirability
By establishing a positive first impression, you benefit from what psychologists call a halo effect—a cognitive bias in which the overall impression you create with another person influences how they feel and think about you and your abilities.
Our brains are hardwired to equate power and confidence with the amount of space we take up with our whole body.
Communicate from a strong home base position. This means standing (or sitting) tall and avoiding a slumped posture. This body language projects authority and confidence.
Here’s how to achieve a powerful home base position. Stand with your feet planted, your pelvis locked to avoid swaying or shifting, and your arms hang loosely by your sides unless gesturing. Your chest should be raised and open and your chin should be level to the ground, with eyes forward. Imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up, elongating the spine.
When presenting from a seated position sit up straight and lean slightly forward with your feet planted firmly on the ground. This will help you project confidence and mask any nervousness by grounding you in your physical space.
Use effective and expansive gestures. Effective gestures mean the gestures align and support what you are saying. Expansive gestures mean they take up space and are away from your body.
Avoid exaggerated gestures. Exaggerated gestures are too big and will make you look overly theatrical as if you are stretching the truth.
How you use the room can help you project confidence and create a more intimate connection with your audience, such as crossing toward someone when answering their question.
Be careful of moving too close or invading people’s personal space as this can come across as intimidating or off-putting.
Eye contact is critical. Too much direct eye contact could be intimidating. Too little eye contact could make you appear as if you are avoiding their gaze. A study from Quantified Impressions suggests if you maintain eye contact for 60% of a conversation, you will come across as engaged, friendly, and trustworthy.
According to Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas, PhD, “Eye contact can have a memory-boosting, prosocial, and stimulating effect.”
Eye contact also allows you to monitor how your audience is receiving your message. Attentive audiences will lean in, sit straight, and remain still. If your audience is slouching, nodding off, or fidgeting, adjust your tactics.
Smiling projects executive presence. Across cultures, smiling is viewed as a sign of friendliness. It also signals to others you are relaxed and in control.
Smiles have also been proven to affect the emotions of the people doing the smiling. Recent studies found that the mere act of smiling actually sparks biological responses in the body that trigger emotions or attitudes associated with smiling.
Every leader has a unique voice and the way they use it creates genuine feelings in their audience’s minds that contribute to presence.
Project your voice. If you speak at a low volume, your audience cannot hear what you are saying and you run the risk of them simply tuning you out.
Speaking with a deliberate pace. Slowing down your pace can help eliminate verbal viruses—the verbal fillers such as “ah” or “um”—that can damage your credibility.
Embrace the length and frequency of pauses. A well-placed pause can help spotlight an important piece of information, allow an audience to absorb a point, or signal that you are about to transition to a new topic.
Often undervalued, accessibility and listening are important leadership skills.
Active listening is more than sitting silently while another person talks. Active listening means truly understanding what that person has said.
Executive presence also means accepting your team’s input, ideas and opinions to help move a company forward.
The ability to perform under pressure while managing time and meeting deadlines is essential. Mindfulness is one way to achieve better performance under stress.
Focusing on your breath is one of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness. Follow a simple process called Stop-Breathe-Look-Listen.
When you start to feel rushed or anxious, start by acknowledging your feelings and accept that they are valid.
Next, stop what you are doing and focus entirely on your breath. Inhale through your nose for five seconds. Then exhale through your mouth for five seconds.
Notice everything you see and hear to the smallest detail, from the buzz of the air conditioner to the items of trash in the wastebasket.
If you feel your attention start to drift or distractions pulling you away from your present moment, put your focus back on your breath and let it ground you.
Speak up, contribute in meetings, and advocate for your ideas. Employees who rarely speak up or share their opinions decrease their visibility.
Every conversation you have with your boss is another opportunity to demonstrate executive presence.
If you are a manager, spend time communicating outside your office. If you are walled off or spend most of your time in your office, workers and higher ups will perceive you as on your own.
Every action you take and every decision you make reveals character, so it is important to demonstrate integrity in word and deed.
Employers want to count on you to do what you say and deliver when you say you will do it.
Identify the values and beliefs you carry with you each and every day, and then demonstrate those values through your choices and behavior.
Authenticity is the final element contributing to executive presence. Research professor Brené Brown defines authenticity as “the choice to let ourselves be seen.”
Authenticity also means speaking with passion about your topic or subject.
Passion is contagious. So is apathy. Passion creates a positive momentum that shows your enthusiasm for the information you are putting forward.
Executive presence is a combination of many factors, such as magnetism, knowledge, passion, speaking skills, assertiveness, confidence, professional appearance, and more.
All of these traits contribute to a person’s perception of you. Your ability to project confidence and credibility to an audience greatly enhances your ability to influence them. By exhibiting executive presence, others may perceive you as leadership material, providing more potential opportunities to elevate your career.
If you want to learn how we can help your employees improve and exhibit more executive presence, please contact us.